Exclusive Interview: James Vanderbilt on White House Down

James Vanderbilt reveals the one thing James Woods refused to do, why he hasn't seen Olympus Has Fallen and how Roland Emmerich changed his original script.

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

James Vanderbilt is a busy man. His latest film, White House Down, stars Channing Tatum as a prospective Secret Service Agent put to the test when terrorists attack the White House, leaving him the only chance the President of the United States, played by Jamie Foxx, has to get out alive. It's Die Hard in the White House, but that doesn't mean he phoned it in: White House Down may be a big summer blockbuster, but it has hundreds of moving parts and Vanderbilt was happy to talk about some of them over the telephone, presumably before he got back to work on ID Forever, the upcoming Independence Day sequel he signed up to write after working with Roland Emmerich on this weekend's biggest release. He also talked a bit about how that particular gig came about, what almost happened in Spider-Man 4, and what part of the script White House Down co-star James Woods refused to do on camera.

White House Down opens on June 28.
 

CraveOnline: One thing that I thought was really cool about your career, is that a lot of people come out with their first, produced screenplay and then they're kind of stuck doing "that" forever. In your first year, you had a serious drama, you had a big, fun action movie and you had a horror film. Has that opened up opportunities for you, that everyone saw you could do all these things at once?

James Vanderbilt: I hope so. I don't know. I've always sort of looked at it like, I'm interested in the stuff I'm really interested in writing, it's not all in the same genre and I know a lot of people do love to kind of stick to the same thing. And a lot of people also think it's a really good idea to just like… The first thing I actually sold was a comedy, which never got made, called Independence, Mississippi. I sold it to Warner Brothers many years ago, and people would tell me, "Oh, you gotta write another comedy! It's just your thing!" It was in 1999, and American Pie had just come out, so I would go on these meetings. Everybody was pitching their idea of like, "It's two guys who end up on the Playboy Playmates Search Bus, and they have a lot of sex, but they learn about love." And I was just like, "I don't know how to do that! I'm not saying it wouldn't make a good movie, it's just not me." So, I started writing this dark, mystery thriller that ends up becoming this movie, Basic, that got made. I would tell people what it is and they'd be like, "That's a really bad idea." I told my manager, "Let me just finish it. You read it, and if it's terrible, I'll put it in a drawer and I guess figure out the Playboy Party Bus idea. I don't know." He read it and he really liked it. I was able to sell that, and I got sort of really lucky right out of the gate. I learned a lesson that, if I concentrate on doing the stuff that turns me on then hopefully, other people will really respond to it. And I just kept kind of doing that throughout my career, which has been really nice to be able to do.
 

What about White House Down turned you on? Did someone tell you, "Hey, we wanna do this Terrorists-Take-Over-The-White-House movie," or did this come from you straight up?

Yeah, it did. It's the first spec I sold since Basic. Just something purely I wrote on my own and really wanted to do. It's a couple different things. I had the idea for a long time, in some form or fashion and never sort of knew what form the story was gonna take. I was like, "This is just a wonderful setting and I can't believe this hasn't been done!" I'm like, "It's such a movie!" About two years ago, I had my second kid and I locked into the idea of it's just about a guy trying to get back to his kid. I was like, "Okay, if I can make the movie about that, that's what the emotional core is," and then it just came pretty easily. I've always been really fascinated by what America does in a crisis. What's the plan? What are the physical steps? When something like this happens, where does the Vice President go? Where does the Speaker of the House go? Can you deploy troops on American soil? Do you need to federalize the National Guard? What's the nitty-gritty of that? That's always been super fascinating to me, so it came out of more that idea than sort of anything else. I was like, "Wrapped in sort of a big, sort of action, guy-behind-enemy-lines-fights-back, buddy movie-type of thing", which I feel we haven't seen in a long time. It's the types of movies that I kind of came up on. I would love to do one of those, you know? All that, sort of in a blender.
 

It sounds like you're really interested in the details and yet, the movie that came out is fantastic, but it's kind of broad.

Well, thank you.
 

I loved it, but it's a little broad, so I'm wondering did this start out, to use the buzz word, "grittier"?

No, actually. It ended up being sort of broad on the page and I think part of it is because… I feel like there's a version of the movie that… Let me put it this way. I worked on a movie that didn't get made several years back, called Against All Enemies which was an adaptation of this amazing memoir by Richard Clarke, who was Clinton's Counter-Terrorism Czar for years, who worked in the Bush Administration as well as actually ran the situation around September 11th. It was a very serious look at counter-terrorism in our country in the last 20 years and for me, was sort of scratching that itch of, "How does the country really, really work?" I was doing it in historical and factual contexts. It was much more like Zodiac was, which was this other movie I wrote about a serial killer, which was true as well. I was like, doing it in a historical context which is really, really interesting, but if you don't… If you're not telling a true story, what's the most…? I don't know, this just felt like, I really wanted there to be fun in it. I know that sounds a little weird, but either you go super, super serious and dark, which can be really, really great but fictionally, I just wanted something to counter-balance that. This is some powerful imagery, you know? You can't always calculate… When you start writing something, you can't go, "It's going to be 45% funny and 30% thrilling." I know it sounds sort of artsy-fartsy but if you know who the characters are and you put them in a room and they start talking to each other and you find out they're both witty, suddenly, there are more jokes on the page than you thought there were gonna be. It's a nice discovery process.
 

I'm curious if you've seen Olympus Has Fallen yet.

I haven't, actually. As soon as I found out that it was around, which is one of those things where like, I finished my script and I put it in a drawer and I was like, "It's way too fat and long and I need to do all this work." and I hadn't told anybody about it. Then I read online about this other movie that sold and I'm like, "You gotta be kiddin' me." From then on, I was like, "Good for them. Fantastic," and I think they're first-time screenwriters, too. It was their first big sale, which is awesome. I was like, "I don't wanna read it. I don't wanna cross-pollenate anything. Good luck for them and I hope it works out well," and I think it did for them.
 

So, now that White House Down is in the can, it's completed, do you think you're ever gonna sit down with a glass of Chardonnay and give that a shot?

Yeah! I'm sure I will at some point. I'm sure I'll see it. I mean, I don't have Chardonnay [Laughs] but I'm sure I'll see it. Nothing against them. You know, it's funny because Antoine Fuqua, who directed that actually shot a documentary for us, that our company is doing on Suge Knight. Brad, my producing partner would come from White House Down production meetings to go sit with Antoine, who's coming from a Olympus Has Fallen production meeting. Hollywood can be a very small town, sometimes. Antoine would be like, "How's it going?" Brad's like, "Good. How's it going with you?"
 

Roland is a screenwriter himself. Did he have a hand in developing this script or was he just like, "Perfect! Let's shoot it as is…?"

No. We definitely did some work on it once he got on board, but that's what people don't realize about Roland. He's a writer-director. It's just nobody kind of thinks of him that way. With the exception of this and Anonymous, I think he's written every movie he's directed since Stargate. I think the last movie before these two he hasn't written was Universal Soldier, which I know he completely kind of redeveloped. He read it and signed on so super-quickly, that it was like, we sold the script on Thursday, and then he signed on on Friday and they greenlit the movie on Sunday.
 

Wow!

It was the fastest thing I've ever been involved in. It was insanely quick, and Amy Pascal, who runs Sony, told me, "I got halfway through it and I sent it to Roland, because I know this is his bread and butter and that he would respond to it," which I considered an immense compliment. He came in and what we really did was spend a lot of time on the villain, which I think in the initial draft, to be honest, was undercooked because the draft that actually sold wasn't supposed to go out. I didn't think it was ready, but because this other movie came along, we started thinking, "We should really get a director. That'll be the sort of only way this will actually go." Then the script leaked out to studios and it was too long, and too fat and I didn't think the villain plot worked.

So it sold at like, 142 pages, which you should never send out a spec script of 142 pages! [Laughs] I was sort of horrified that people were seeing it in this condition. It wasn’t ready yet, but Roland was wonderful. He came in, and identified what [he wanted]. Sort of, "I love this. I love that. I wanna work on here and here," and we immediately set to work to kind of make it… He wanted to make sure the President was doing something you wanted… It was sort of like, "Okay, I know he's the President, but why do we care about saving him, other than the fact that he's the President?" And then, working on the villain's plot, it was, "What's really at the heart of this? Why would somebody do this?" And we sort of sharpened all that up. It was really interesting because I felt like you would assume Roland Emmerich would come in and go, "Okay, I wanna do big action here, here and here," and I'd say 95% of the work he did on the script was character.